Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett in “Bakersfield Mist” at the Fountain Theatre
It has travelled around the world and it is now coming home. Just in time for the holidays.
Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s smash hit comedy that went on to see productions around the world including London’s West End, will return to the Fountain for a limited 4-week engagement beginning Nov. 19. Sachs will again direct, with Jenny O’Hara (Transparent, The Mindy Project) and Nick Ullett(As the World Turns) reprising the roles they created.
Inspired by true events, Bakersfield Mist is the story of Maude Gutman, an unemployed, chain-smoking ex-bartender living in a run-down California trailer park, who believes the painting she bought in a thrift store for $3 is really an undiscovered masterpiece worth millions. When stuffy New York art expert Lionel Percy arrives to evaluate the work, the result is a fiery and often hilarious debate over class, truth, value and the meaning of art.
“Stephen’s play has enjoyed success around the country and the world, so when Jenny and Nick became available, we jumped at the chance to bring it back,” says producer Simon Levy. “We live in such stressful times, and this play offers the perfect antidote — it’s very funny, yet also thought-provoking. Just in time for the holidays.”
Bakersfield Mist premiered at the Fountain in June, 2011, garnering glowing notices including a “Critic’s Choice” review in the Los Angeles Times which exclaimed “It’s exhilarating in the extreme when a world premiere play strikes rich on every conceivable level.” The production was hailed a “Go!” in the LA Weekly and a “Critic’s Pick” in Backstage. It played to sold-out houses for more than six months, rivaling only Sachs’ own Central Avenue as the most successful world premiere of a new play in the Fountain’s 26-year history. Bakersfield Mist opened on London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid for a 3-month run.Vanity Fair called Sachs’ play “Not to be missed… tackles large creative questions with well-timed zingers,” The Times of London found it to be “thoroughly entertaining… put a smile on my face and kept my brain buzzing for a good while afterward,” The New York Times labeled it “clever… a battle of wits,” and it received the 2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play. In the U.S., Bakersfield Mist has been produced by Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Florida and in an extended run at the Olney Theatre in Maryland, where it is Helen Hayes Award-recommended and was lauded “5 Stars… provocative, fast-paced and cleverly funny” by DCMetro. The play is currently running in Chicago in a Jeff Award-recommended production at the Timeline Theatre which has been praised as “Highly Recommended” by the Chicago Sun-Times and “the perfect evening of theatre” by Chicago Theatre Review. Bakersfield Mist is now being produced in regional theaters across the country; it has been translated into other languages and is being performed around the world, including in Iceland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Scotland, Australia and Canada.
Set design for Bakersfield Mist is by Jeffrey McLaughlin; sound design is by Peter Bayne; props and set dressing are by Terri Roberts; and the fight director is Edgar Landa. The production stage manager is Emily Lehrer; associate producer is James Bennett; and Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.
Stephen Sachs’ other plays include Dream Catcher, Citizen: An American Lyric (adapted from the internationally acclaimed book by Claudia Rankine), Heart Song (Fountain Theatre, Florida Stage), Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award, Best Adaptation), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (Fountain Theatre, Vancouver Playhouse, Canadian Stage Company, LA Drama Critics Circle award and LA Weekly award nomination for Best Adaptation), Gilgamesh (Theatre @ Boston Court), Open Window (Pasadena Playhouse, Media Access Award for Excellence), Central Avenue (PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Back Stage Garland award, Best Play), Sweet Nothing in My Ear(PEN USA Literary Award finalist, Media Access award, NEA grant award), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play, Drama-Logue) and The Baron in the Trees. He wrote the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in My Ear for Hallmark Hall of Fame which aired on CBS starring Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. Sachs co-founded The Fountain Theatre with Deborah Lawlor in 1990.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
by Josh Gershick
Citizen: An American Lyric, the play, takes its title and text from a book of prose poetry by Claudia Rankine, finalist for 2014 National Book Award in Poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other plaudits. Writing in the New York Times last June, after six black women and three black men were shot to death by a self-avowed white supremacist at a Bible-study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Ms. Rankine said, “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black .”
The play – “a fast-moving collage of colliding events, fragments, vignettes and streams of consciousness”-is deeply compelling. Here, a chat with Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the playwright who brought Citizen to the stage.
JOSH GERSHICK:Citizen is a beautiful piece of theatre, addressing persistent racism head on. Talk about theatre’s (and this play’s) ability to move, transform, agitate and uplift an audience.
STEPHEN SACHS: In 2014, when Claudia’s book was being published, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO. I had been looking for a theatre protect that would add a unique voice to the national conversation about race in America. Racism is embedded in the fabric of our country and its founding.
We may all be created equal, but we certainly are not perceived that way by each other. I wanted to make a statement that would open the eyes, minds and hearts of audiences in unexpected ways. Quite by accident, I was caught by a review of Citizen in a national newspaper. The title immediately grabbed me. When I actually got the book, it flashed in my mind that this was the voice I was looking for. What makes the book-and the theatre piece – unique is that they expose and illuminate the sometimes unintended and unconscious acts of everyday racism. Subtle, insidious, soul crushing-the little murders we commit daily. Micro-aggressions between friends and co-workers at the market, in the office and on the subway. What we say, how we think, what we do. White privilege and dominance have been so deeply [ingrained] in this country. The play makes you see it, feel it, and think about it. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
JOSH GERSHICK: You’ve said you’d like theatre-goers to come away with a new awareness of how they themselves might perpetuate racism. A white theatre-goer cannot, in my view, see this piece without confronting his or her own attitudes: ideas. But what is the takeaway for audiences of color, who are on the receiving end of racism?
STEPHEN SACHS: A dramatization of white dominance. A truth-telling. We had a full mix of white and black audience members throughout the run at the Fountain Theatre. Black patrons had a wide range of reactions to the play: the laughter of recognition, gasps, silence, tears. The unease of, “I can’t believe you’re really saying that,” and the delight of “I’m so glad you are.” And because it’s all about exposing and revealing hidden (and not so hidden) racism, the piece carries the call of giving voice and speaking out.
JOSH GERSHICK: The run was clearly a success. (Mazel Tov on your Stage Raw Award!) What’s next for the play?
‘Citizen’ at Pure Theatre in Charleston, SC.
STEPHEN SACHS: The play now is beginning its future life around the country. I’m proud that Citizen is beingperformed in Charleston this June, in a theatre just four blocks away from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting there. On June 17, when we reflect on that national tragedy, the play will be there. This is deeply meaningful to me. This is why we do what we do. This is who we are. A New York production is also in the works.
JOSH GERSHICK: I think of LA theatre, 99-seat theatre, as an incubator, a cradle, a hothouse and a glorious lab for bringing forth new, compelling work-Citizen, for example and revisiting work that remains seldom produced, such as the work of Alice Childress. What percentage of new work launched at the Fountain Theatre goes on to regional stages and to NY?
STEPHEN SACHS: The Fountain Theatre is a home for artists and audiences to gather together in an intimate setting to share stories that illuminate what it means to be a human being, with the goal that new plays are then seen in theatres across the country and around the world. We may be small in size, but we’re large in heart and dedication and purpose.
Kathleen Turner in ‘Bakersfield Mist’, West End, London.
Quite a number of new plays created, developed and launched at the Fountain have now been produced across the U.S.and around the world. Sweet Nothing in Ear has been performed around the country and was made into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. What I Heard About Iraq has been performed internationally, winning the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was produced around the country, then opened Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, then went overseas to the Edinburgh Festival. Bakersfield Mist, performed in theatres across the country, ran for three months on the West End in London, starring Kathleen Turner, and is now being produced in regional theatres throughout the country and translated into other languages and performed worldwide. The list goes on and on.
JOSH GERSHICK: Recently a New Yorker said to me, “Oh, is there theater in Los Angeles?” True, actors, writers & directors typically make their living here in TV, film & digital platforms, but we have amazing theatre-and most abundantly and energetically, intimate theater.
STEPHEN SACHS: Los Angeles still fights for its right to be called a “theatre town,” even though-and this may surprise you-more theatre is produced in LA than any other city in the world. More than New York or London.And according to a recent report, Los Angeles is also home to more working artists than any other city in the United States. The national profile of theatre in Los Angeles has never been higher. More and more new plays created here are being produced nationwide. Still, the myth is that LA theatre is somehow less serious and that LA actors do theatre only to be seen by casting directors in “the industry,” and not for the art of the work. This simply is not true. It’s a lie. And much of the most satisfying work and the most challenging new plays are being done in LA’s intimate theaters. Larger theaters can no longer afford to take artistic risks, so all that adventurous, artistic energy is humming in the intimate theatre community. The spirit behind it, the force to create, has transformed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.
Josh Gershick is a playwright, filmmaker and author. This post originally appeared in The Dramatist, the national magazine for The Dramatist Guild.
Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted for the stage from Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry by Rankine and Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, will headline Primary Stages’ 2016-17 season at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Citizen premiered at the Fountain Theatre last summer to critical acclaim.
“We are thrilled that yet another Fountain project has succeeded in moving onward and upward,” says Sachs. “In 2007, our world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was presented Off-Broadway by Primary Stages, so this continues our relationship with them. Claudia and I are working together on a new draft for the New York premiere.” An announcement for the NY opening was featured in The New York Times.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
An intensely provocative and unapologetic rumination on racial aggression in America, Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been heralded as one of the best books of the past decade and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In this new stage adaptation by Rankine and Sachs, seemingly everyday acts of racism are scrutinized as part of an uncompromising testimony of “living while Black” in America, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the tennis career of Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his “critic’s choice” review of the Fountain production, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote, “Claudia Rankine’s powerful writings about the trauma of racism make for a staging and message that resonate,” and Stage raw critic Myron Meisel called it “a transcendent experience.”
“We are particularly pleased that this piece will have a life in theaters across the country,” added Sachs. “By enlivening Claudia’s powerful book to the stage, we add our theatrical voice to the national conversation on race in America.”
Other plays written by Sachs that were created and launched at the Fountain’s intimate venue in Hollywood include Bakersfield Mist, now produced worldwide including London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner; Heart Song, produced at Florida Repertory Theatre; Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (adapted from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie) at Vancouver Playhouse and Canadian Stage Company in Toronto; and Sweet Nothing in My Ear which has been produced nationwide and was adapted into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin.
The world premiere production of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre was directed by Shirley Jo Finney and starred Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. The director and cast for the Primary Stages production have not been announced.
For more information about the Primary Stages production of Citizen: An American Lyric, visitwww.primarystages.org.
In celebration of a “silver” theatrical milestone, “The Fountain Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Gala and Auction” will honor co-artistic director and award-winning playwright/director Stephen Sachs on Saturday, October 3rd at Hollywood’s Redbury Hotel. City of Los Angeles Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell serves as honorary chair.
The gala event will include a cocktail reception, silent auction, champagne, dessert and dancing on the hotel’s rooftop overlooking Hollywood. Highlights will include a special presentation by Councilmember O’Farrell and a retrospective montage of the last 25 years of Fountain Theatre history.
The Fountain online auction is now live with enthusiastic bidding already underway. Great deals on over 140 amazing items — inc luding travel, dining, theatre and sports tickets, vacation packages — are now available and just one click away. The online auction ends September 3oth. The silent auction takes place on the night of the event at The Redbury on October 3rd.
The evening is a tribute to Sachs, who, together with co-artistic director Deborah Lawlor and producing directorSimon Levy, has guided the organization since its founding in 1990 and cemented its place in the Los Angeles theater community. Under Sachs’ leadership — as a director, a producer and a playwright — the Fountain Theatre has achieved over 250 awards and international acclaim; in a recent article, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty named the Fountain, “one of L.A.’s most vital intimate theaters.”
Sachs has also personally won every major theater award in Los Angeles, including two Ovation Awards for Best Director of a Play. He has twice been nominated for the SDC Zelda Fichandler Award honoring outstanding stage directors in the Western United States. Sachs has authored 12 plays that have been produced across the U.S. and internationally and translated into multiple languages. A two-time finalist for the PEN Literary Award for drama, Sachs wrote the teleplay for Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Sweet Nothing in My Ear based on his award-winning play. The movie aired on CBS and starred Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and Golden Globe winner Jeff Daniels. His play Bakersfield Mist won the Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play, received its London premiere starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid in London’s West End, and is now being produced in theaters across the country and around the world. Sachs’ Citizen: An American Lyric, a stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book, is currently running at the Fountain, where it has received rave reviews and was named a “Critic’s Choice” by the Los Angeles Times.
For more information on the Gala and details about how to participate in the celebration with a tribute message, email FT25@fountaintheatre.com.
Net proceeds from The Fountain Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Gala and Auction will provide vital funds to support the development and production of new plays and provide educational outreach opportunities for students throughout greater Los Angeles.
Mixing stylish chic hip with the glamour of old Hollywood, the Redbury is a boutique luxury hotel located near the iconic intersection of Hollywood and Vine in the heart of Hollywood.
The Fountain Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Gala and Auction takes place on Saturday, Oct. 3 from 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Tickets are $125. Special discount tickets for theatre artists are $99. The Redbury Hotel is located at 1717 Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028. For more information to make reservations, call (310) 665-1525 or go to www.fountaintheatre.com.
“I and This Mystery, here we stand” —Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’
On the night before a class assignment is due, Caroline and Anthony plumb the mysteries of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass — unaware that a much deeper mystery has brought them together. The Los Angeles premiere ofI and You by Lauren Gunderson, winner of the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, opens onApril 11 at the Fountain Theatre, directed by Robin Larsen.
Only in high school would two completely unconnected people — feisty, chronically ill Caroline and levelheaded basketball star Anthony — be paired to collaborate on a project to deconstruct a poem about the interconnectivity of everything.Jennifer Finch(7 Redneck Cheerleadersand Hellcab with Elephant Theatre Company) andMatthew Hancock (Oshoosi inThe Brothers Size at the Fountain) star as two smart and funny teens who share an unknown and profound bond.
“Whitman says that we are all one because we are all equal, even though it might not look like it at times. There is a universal oneness,” said Gunderson in an interview.
“These two precocious teenagers and Walt Whitman’s epic poem of humanity have something to teach us all,” says Larsen. “That we are supremely connected, to each other, to the earth, to the stars, and that recognizing this connection, becoming conscious of it, is perhaps the point of our existence.”
Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock
I and Youwas commissioned by South Coast Repertory (which also commissioned Gunderson’sEmilie: La Marquise Du Chaltelet Defends Her Life Tonightin 2009 andSilent Skyin 2011). The play received readings at SCR’s Pacific Playwrights Festival in April 2012 and as part of Magic Theatre’s new play development Magic @ the Costume Shop program. It premiered at the Marin Theatre Company in the fall of 2013, the first production in a series of “rolling world premieres” made possible by the National New Play Network’s Continued Life of New Plays Fund; subsequent NNPN productions took place at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland and the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana.I and You went on to win the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.American Theatremagazine put it on the cover of its July/August 2014 issue and featured the script in its entirety.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson
Lauren Gunderson studied Southern literature and drama at Emory University, and dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School where she was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has been commissioned, produced and developed at companies across the U.S. including South Coast Rep (Emilie, Silent Sky), the Kennedy Center (The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful And Her Dog!), the O’Neill, Denver Center, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, Synchronicity, Olney Theatre, Geva and more. Her work is published at Playscripts (I and You, Exit, Pursued By A Bear andToil And Trouble) and Samuel French (Emilie). She is a playwright-in-residence at the Playwrights Foundation and a member of the Dramatists Guild. Originally from Atlanta, GA, Gunderson lives in San Francisco.
Robin Larsen has been chosen to receive the 2015 Milton Katselas Award for Career Achievement in Direction by the Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle, to be presented at the LADCC awards ceremony on March 16, and the production ofA Delicate Balance that she directed for Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is a current nominee for the circle’s McCulloh Award for Revival.Other directing credits includeMrs. Warren’s Profession at Antaeus; the L.A. premiere of David Harrower’sBlackbirdfor Rogue Machine (LADCC nomination, Best Production; five “Best of 2011” lists including theLos Angeles TimesandLA Weekly); the world premiere ofPursued By Happinessby Keith Huff at the Road Theatre Company (Los Angeles Times“Critic’s Choice”); and the West Coast premiere ofThe Fall To Earthby Joel Drake Johnson, starring JoBeth Williams, at the Odyssey (LADCC Nomination, Huffington Post “2012 Top Los Angeles Theater Productions”). Robin’s West Coast premiere ofFour Places,also by Joel Johnson, at Rogue Machine was one of the most lauded plays of the 2010 L.A. theater season, winning Ovation, LADCC and Backstage Garland awards for Best Production. For the Black Dahlia Theatre, Robin directed the West Coast premiere ofTryst(five Ovation Award nominations including Best Production and Best Director, threeLA WeeklyAwards including Best Play, and twoBackstage Garland Awards including Best Director) and the L.A. premiere of David Schulner’sAn Infinite Ache(Los Angeles Times“Critic’s Choice”). Robin is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker whose work has screened at festivals around the world. Her web seriesSex & Marriage, created with playwright John Pollono, can be seen on Justin Lin’s YouTube network YOMYOMF.
Set design forI and You is byTom Buderwitz; lighting design is byJeremy Pivnick; sound design is byJohn Zalewski; costume design is byJocelyn Hublau Parker; production stage manager isJosephine Austin; associate producer isJames Bennett; andStephen Sachs,Deborah Lawlorand Simon Levy produce for the Fountain Theatre.
Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored with the 2014 Ovation Award for Best Season and the 2014 BEST Award for overall excellence from the Biller Foundation; the Fountain playBakersfield Mist in London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid; the sold-outForever Flamencogala concert at the 1200-seat John Anson Ford Amphitheatre; and the last four Fountain productions consecutively highlighted as Critic’s Choice in theLos Angeles Times. The Fountain has been honored with six Awards of Excellence from the Los Angeles City Council for “enhancing the cultural life of Los Angeles.”
Actors Jenny O’Hara and Tim Cummings after a performance of ‘Broomstick’ at the Fountain.
3 Critic’s Choice Selections, Sold-Out Flamenco, London Opening, and Best Season Award Highlight Year
2014 was truly another unforgettable year for the Fountain Theatre. It was a year of extraordinary growth and achievement.
All three 2014 productions were honored as Critic’s Choice in the Los Angeles Times, our Forever Flamenco at the Ford gala was a sold-out success, and The Fountain was once again awarded the preeminent Ovation Award for Best Season in 2014. And the London production of Bakersfield Mist on the West End starring Kathleen Turner brought us international attention.
The year also brought the shadow of sadness with the loss of our longtime Subscriptions Director Diana Gibson. Her legacy lives on in the vivid memories she leaves behind, and in the Diana Gibson Subscriber Fund we created.
Here are some of the highlights:
My Name is Asher Lev – Los Angeles Premiere. ‘Critic’s Choice’ Los Angeles Times. Extended sold out run.
Forever Flamenco @ The Ford– Sold-out gala concert at the 1200-seat Ford Theatre.
The Brothers Size – Los Angeles Premiere. ‘Critic’s Choice’ Los Angeles Times. Extended run.
Playwright Tarell McCraney – Discusses his play, The Brothers Size, at the Fountain Theatre.
Tarell McCraney and the company of The Brothers Size.
Bakersfield Mist– opens on the West End in London starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
Stephen Sachs and Deborah Lawlor outside The Duchess Theatre, London.
Gabby Lamm and Alice Kors – our two fabulous summer interns were terrific and helpful and launched our first Student Night at the Fountain.
Gabby Lamm and Alice Kors
Diana Gibson – The Fountain grieved the loss of our longtime Subscriptions Director, who passed away after a long illness.
The Stephen Sachs hit play Bakersfield Mist, which enjoyed a 7-month sold-out run in its world premiere at the Fountain in 2011, is now earning marvelous reviews in Sweden as ‘Ingen Konst’ (“No Art”) starring Peter Flack and Marie Kuhler Flack. Sachs has been invited to Sweden to attend a performance of his play in the city of Orebro, outside Stockholm. He will be there November 5 – 10.
“I’m thrilled to be going to Sweden,” exclaimed Sachs. “Of course, the play is being performed there in Swedish so I’m eager and curious to see how audiences in another country are responding to these characters and the material.”
Marie Kuhler Flack and Peter Flack (Sweden)
After first opening at the Fountain Theatre starring Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett, Bakersfield Mist was produced in a select number of theaters around the US as part of an exclusive Rolling World Premiere with the National New Play Network (NNPN). The UK production recently ran for 3 months this summer in London on the West End starring Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid. The play is now being translated into other languages and being produced around the world. It will soon be published in the United States by Dramatists Play Service and be produced in regional theaters nationwide.
Stephen Sachs with Peter Flack and Marie Kühler Flack at the Duchess Theatre, London.
The Orebro production in Sweden is a hit and getting wonderful reviews: “The acting is dynamic and the lines bounce with a vitality that is next to perfect. An entertaining comedy with a serious undertone. A wonderfully human comedy …”
Sachs met the two Swedish actors, who are also husband and wife, when they came to see the London production of the play on the West End.
“It’s the dream of every playwright to have a play that is enjoyed in countries around the world,” says Sachs. “I’m delighted to see that now happening with Bakersfield Mist.”
“And it all started here at the Fountain Theatre.”
‘Bakersfield Mist’ at the Fountain Theatre (2011)
Rehearsal/Trailer of ‘Ingen Konst’ in Sweden (2014)
When Stephen Sachs was a student at Agoura High, he won a national high school writing award and was offered several writing scholarships. He turned them all down. Why? “I wanted to be an actor,” he answered a bit sheepishly.
He became one in the 1980s, but it’s the old story. As reality set in, he began to direct, write plays and help run theatre companies. He was a manager at Ensemble Studio Theatre, worked behind the scenes at Stages in Hollywood, and with Joan Stein and Suzie Dietz at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Until he got a phone call “out of the blue” from Deborah Lawlor, another independent theatre producer.
Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs
Lawlor had met Sachs at Stages when she rented space there, and was impressed by him. While recuperating from a serious auto accident in New York, she decided that, if she survived, she would do what she’d always wanted: have her own theatre. She called Sachs and asked him to run it with her. That was 1990. You might say that the rest is history, but not so fast…
“I was just starting to develop as a playwright and director,” Sachs said. “Deborah had a dance background. She was part of the avant-garde dance scene in New York in the 1960s and 70s. The Judson Dance Theater, Café Cino, the whole thing. Her idea was to create an artistic home for theatre and dance artists.”
As a wise friend once told me, we tend to enter our lives through the back door. Looking around for a suitable space, Lawlor and Sachs were shown a funky building at 5060 Fountain Avenue in Hollywood and fell in love with it. They named it the Fountain for the street it sat on, but also, Lawlor said, “I liked the idea of a fountain of work…”
“We opened our doors on April Fool’s Day 1990—the perfect day to start a theatre company,” said Sachs, “and we’ve been there ever since. Los Angeles being such a diverse city, we wanted to do work that would give voice to a variety of communities.”
Which is how the theatre’s association with Flamenco dance began.
Flamenco dancer Maria Bermudez
“Through Deborah,” specified Sachs. “Shortly after we opened she asked, ‘Have you ever seen a Flamenco concert?’ I said no and she said, ‘Come with me.’ We got in the car, drove up to Santa Barbara and she introduced me to Roberto Amaral, a well respected Flamenco teacher and choreographer. I saw my first Flamenco concert and was blown away. ‘We’re going to do that at The Fountain,’ Deborah said. And now we’re the foremost regular presenters of Flamenco in Los Angeles.
“When we started it was just Deborah, me and the building. We plugged in a couple of phones, drove down Western Avenue and bought a couple of desks. We had to assemble them ourselves. We made our own programs on a manual typewriter. It was all very small, very modest.”
In many ways, it still is. “But from the beginning,” added Sachs, “we felt we were on to something. We did The Golden Gate, a play I had adapted from a charming novel by Vikram Seth about yuppies, gays and straights living in San Francisco—romantic and fun, beautifully written, and entirely in verse. It was like 30-somethings meet Shakespeare. We did it up in San Francisco, so right out of the gate, our work was being noticed. It’s just been a slow kind of gentle growth ever since.”
While next year will mark their 25th year in business at the same address in a virtually unchanged environment, and they have a lot to show artistically for the past quarter century, big profit is not one of them. Lawlor has delivered financial support when needed, while Sachs has delivered a stream of noteworthy plays, becoming that unusual creature: a playwright and director with his own sandbox. Together, they’ve built a loyal audience and done work that has brought them recognition and has traveled pretty far afield.
Sachs has had 11 of his plays produced during that time, many of them at the Fountain, quite a few elsewhere—from The Pasadena Playhouse to Toronto, from Chicago’s Victory Gardens to Vancouver. A quick Google search offers an impressive list of directing and playwriting credits.
Rochelle (Pamela Dunlap) finds release through dance in ‘Heart Song’.
Currently, his play Heart Song, which recently premiered at the Fountain and is about the transformation of a middle-aged Jewish woman “separated from her tribe and very much alone,” is filling up houses at Florida Rep. His 2012 two-hander, Bakersfield Mist, about the encounter of a celebrated art dealer with a woman in a Bakersfield trailer convinced she owns a major work of art, opens in June at The Duchess Theatre in London’s West End. It features Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid.
“There’s been something special about this play from the start,” said Sachs. “I directed the world premiere at the Fountain and was on the 101 freeway driving to my first production meeting, when I had a call from my agent telling me the script had been optioned for New York. I had to pull over!”
Bakersfield Mist received three other productions around the country as part of the National New Play Network (NNPN), an organization of theaters of which The Fountain is a member. It was founded in 1998 with the intent of giving new plays more than one production.
“They do this thing called ‘rolling world premieres,’ ” Sachs explained, “guaranteeing at least three productions of a new play. Sweet Nothing In My Ear, another play of mine that premiered at the Fountain, went around the country through NNPN and then was made into a Hallmark movie with Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels. A new version of Strinberg’s Miss Julie that I wrote was produced that way as well. We want to continue doing more of that.”
Bakersfield Mist had productions at Wellfleet Harbor Theatre in Cape Cod, New Rep in Boston, the New Jersey Rep and was optioned by Sonia Friedman, a major New York and London producer. “They’d never seen a production of it,” said Sachs. “They read that script sent by my agent and optioned it for London and New York. Now they control the U.S. rights.”
Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in the London production of “Bakersfield Mist”
In 2004, the Fountain drew the attention of no less a playwright than South Africa’s Athol Fugard, who chose the tiny Fountain for the world premiere of an exquisite and very personal two-character play: Exits and Entrances. It was followed by the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s The Blue Iris, The Train Driver, Victory and the West coast premiere of Coming Home.
When asked how many productions the Fountain puts on per year, Sachs answered: “Trick question. We’ll announce four, but actually do two or three. Our productions tend to extend and run for a while which is a nice problem to have. So we announce four and see how it goes.”
Productions are no longer pegged to specific dates, but to seasons — Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter — allowing for greater flexibility. Sachs and Lawlor threw out the old model of rigid slots when they found themselves closing hits because they had committed to a new show on a given date. With just 80 seats to sell, they had to think more creatively. “We changed everyone to a flexible pass and we’ve never looked back. This allows us to keep a hit going. It also allows our subscribers the flexibility to come at their convenience—a good thing when decisions today tend to be so last-minute.”
So is the small physical plant a plus or a minus?
“It’s a question we’ve been wrestling with for years,” Sachs acknowledged, “a tug between ambition and what is right for the company. We even explored Hollywood quite a bit, looking to find maybe a second space or larger building, thinking, boy, how much bigger we could be. Yet talking with Fugard about this, he said, ‘Don’t. Don’t do it.’ Maybe he’s right…”
“The Train Driver” by Athol Fugard
So here’s the dilemma: Awards and recognition are certainly not lacking, but breaking even—let alone making money—is a perennial struggle. The staff has ballooned to six people: Lawlor and Sachs, producing director Simon Levy, tech director Scott Tuomey, associate producer James Bennett and head of subscriptions Diana Gibson. The budget has “a little more than doubled” since they opened their doors. It does not easily enable profit.
“There are times when I wish we had more seats, a bigger stage,” said Sachs, “but there are plenty of examples out there of smaller theatres that have gone on to larger buildings and have regretted it or have lost something in the move; suddenly the focus becomes the real estate and maintaining the overhead.
“I don’t ever want to lose the magic of this intimate space. It makes for such a visceral experience. But after almost 25 years, there’s also a question of growth. We can’t become stagnant or complacent and we do want to continue building forward. You don’t want to sell your soul and you don’t want to lose what makes this theatre special.”
Lawlor concurred. She’s writing a play for which she’s received a grant and acknowledged that “our losses have decreased; we may even show a tiny profit this year.”
“Expanding fund-raising; exploring the possibility of adding 19 seats to our existing space. Not easy,” said Sachs, “but we can do that under the 99-seat Equity Waiver and 19 seats could make a difference. Other than that, we’re looking to expand our exposure across the country and having more of our work done at other theatres.”
So the funky Fountain remains the-little-theatre-that-could, on its funky street with its broken sidewalk, its postage-stamp parking lot, and widely enjoyed by many people who apparently have found out that they really, really like what it has to offer.
Bakersfield Mist was created and produced at the Fountain Theatrein Los Angeles where Sachs is co-artistic director. The Fountain production, the first in a rolling world premiere supported by the National New Play Network‘s Continued Life of New Plays Fund, was a smash hit, earning rave reviews and running seven months including three extensions.
Inspired by true events the play asks vital questions about what makes art and people truly authentic. It won the 2012 Elliot Norton Award for Best New Play.
In the play, Maude (Turner), a fifty-something unemployed bartender, has bought a painting for a few bucks from the thrift store. Despite almost trashing it, she is now convinced it’s a Jackson Pollock worth millions. But when world-class art expert, Lionel Percy (McDiarmid), flies over from New York and arrives at her trailer park home in Bakersfield to authenticate the painting, he has no idea what he is about to discover.
In a press statement, Turner commented, “The shock and humor of diametrically opposed cultures with the transformative power of art – pure joy.” McDiarmid added, “I liked the idea and comic potential of two passionately opinionated cultural opposites engaged in a life-changing battle for the soul of a great painter.”
Nica Burns, co-producer of the play with Sonia Friedman Productions, Darren Bagert/Martin Massman and Chris & Kelbe Bensinger, added, “When we were lucky enough to hear Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid read the play for us, the chemistry between these two great stage actors was thrilling. It has been eight years since Kathleen stunned London audiences with her extraordinary award winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This is a fantastic role for her return to the London stage.”
Turner, who is currently appearing in the title role of Mother Courage at Washington DC’s Arena Stage (through March 9), has previously appeared onstage on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Indiscretions, The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and High. Other stage credits include The Killing of Sister George (Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven) andRed Hot Patriot: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (Philadelphia Theater Center, LA’s Geffen, and DC’s Arena Stage).
McDiarmid, who is best known for his role as Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine in the “Star Wars” film series, has worked extensively in the theatre, including an 11-year stint when he was joint artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre. He appeared there in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, subsequently winning a Tony Award for reprising the role on Broadway in 2006. Other theatre acting credits include Life of Galileo for the RSC, Timon of Athens at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, The Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre and Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse.
The play will be directed by Polly Teale, joint artistic director of Shared Experience, for whom she has directed Jane Eyre, Brontë, After Mrs. Rochester, Bracken Moor, Mary Shelley and Speechless, amongst others. She co-directed War and Peace in a co-production for the National Theatre and Mill on the Floss. “Brontë” has been adapted as a feature film for Film Squared/Pathé.
Playwright Stephen Sachs
Playwright Stephen Sachs is co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. His other plays include Heart Song (Los Angeles 2013, Florida Rep 2014), Cyrano (LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, Ovation Award nomination), Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (LADCC and LA Weekly Award nominations), Gilgamesh (Theater@Boston Court), Open Window (Pasadena Playhouse, Media Access Award), Central Avenue(PEN USA Literary Award Finalist), Sweet Nothing in my Ear (PEN USA Literary Award Finalist, Media Access Award), Mother’s Day, The Golden Gate (Best Play Award, Dramalogue) and The Baron in the Trees. He wrote the teleplay for “Sweet Nothing in my Ear” for Hallmark Hall of Fame which aired on CBS, starring Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels.
The London production will run at the Duchess Theatre, May 10through August 30. The design team includes scenic designer Tom Piper, lighting designer Oliver Fenwick and sound designer Jon Nicholls. Bakersfield Mist is produced in the West End by Nica Burns, Sonia Friedman Productions, Darren Bagert/Martin Massman and Chris & Kelbe Bensinger.
Bakersfield Mist is a work of fiction. Although based on actual events, the characters and events in the play are fictionalized and are not intended to accurately depict or resemble any actual person or event, living or dead. Names, characters, places and incidents have been changed for dramatic purposes.